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Lai Balkaran (2002). 

Dictionary of the Guyanese Amerindians, and Other 

South American Native Terms: An A-Z Guide To Their 

Anthropology, Cosmology, Culture, Exploration, 

History, Geography, Legend, Folklore And Myth. 

Toronto: LB A Publications. 255 pages 
ISBN 0-9699833-8-7 (paperback) $ 29.95 

Reviewed by: Maximilian C. Forte 

Review Contents: 






Lai Balkaran's Dictionary of the Guyanese Amerindians is comprehensive enough that it 
comes close to being an encyclopaedia. Balkaran provides coverage of some 
anthropological concepts, Amerindian cosmology, culture, histories of exploration of 
Guyana by European explorers, the history of Guyana with reference to Amerindians, 
geography, legends, folklore, myth, ethnobotany, ethnohistory, music, and politics. It is 
an impressive volume that clearly involved considerable research, as well as personal 
experience and knowledge. Apart from certain issues concerning the author's personal 
perspective (see below), this volume would be ideal for students, novice ethnographers, 
and those planning to undertake archival research. [1] 

The volume boasts of over 5,000 entries and includes profiles of early explorers, early 
anthropologists in Guyana, and an Amerindian "Who's Who" throughout the text. 
Included in the Dictionary are maps of Amerindian population distribution, a detailed 
time line from 1 1,000 BC to 2001 AD, samples of Amerindian vocabularies, lists of 
governors of Guyana and priests who served there, and 22 photographs. Additional 
information on Amerindian tribes in Venezuela, Suriname, and Brazil is provided, as well 
as lists of minerals, animals, timbers, waterfalls and rapids, rivers, mountains and 
mountain ranges, and Amerindian villages in Guyana. Throughout the Dictionary there is 
exceptional coverage of a very wide range of colonial figures: priests, magistrates, 

commissioners, miners, settlers, ranchers, explorers, officers, prospectors, merchants — 
some possibly obscured or omitted from the mainstream literature, instead presented here 
in great detail — and all tied to Amerindians in some fashion. The actual dictionary part of 
the volume is to be found from pages 29 to 174. [2] 

This is apparently a self published text. The independent nature of this project is both one 
of its strengths and weaknesses, as I shall discuss below. [3] 

Lai Balkaran is also the author of several business management and accounting books. 
Starting in 1970, Balkaran served as a primary school teacher among the Wapishanas of 
the South Rupununi savannahs for five years. During that time, he kept notes, collected 
books, record albums, and artwork. As he explains, he hunted with his Amerindian 
neighbours, fished with them, participated in feasts, observed their taboos, and lived like 
them. The author clearly possesses a wide-ranging cognitive map of Guyanese 
Amerindian ethnography, derived from personal experience and contacts, and this is 
often made explicit in the text. [4] 

This is an independent enterprise, as Imentioned. As Lai Balkaran puts it, "I am an 
amateur when it comes to the range of subjects covered in this work" (p. xiv). Balkaran 
also asks: "why can't an internal auditor write on the indigenous peoples of his native 
Guyana?" (p. xiv). There is nothing to say the he cannot, or should not, and members of 
the reading public will welcome his initiative. Self publication, and being an amateur (in 
the positive and original sense of the word, as in "the lover of a subject") are not 
inherently negative shortcomings of a work, and not the best way to assess it either. On 
the other hand, there is no reason for an independent writer not to seek out peer review 
prior to publication, and to obtain constructive criticisms that should be used to revise a 
text prior to publication. [5] 

Clearly the non-academic world is impatient and anxious for the empirical information 
held by academics but largely left scattered and unavailable to the public. There is a 
craving for data on Caribbean Amerindians by interested members of the general public. 
Indeed, the opening quote of the volume speaks to this craving: "The desire of 
knowledge, like the thirst of riches, increases ever with the acquisition of it" (Laurence 
Sterne). What Lai Balkaran has done is to take up the slack left by academics. [6] 


While the text succeeds in terms of the depth and wide range of empirical content, 
readers such as myself might find themselves very disappointed with the author's 
perspective as found in some of the entries and in his own introduction. In some ways, 
this text resembles some old fashioned explorers' handbooks given its eclectic and 
detailed coverage. Yet, one of the unfortunate similarities with early European chronicles 
is the text's equally old-fashioned ethnocentrism. The "civilization versus barbarism" 
dichotomy, which one would hope would have died out by now, receives a new lease on 
life in this volume. This text would most likely be favoured by Christian missionaries 

with an unrepentant attitude towards the past, as it contains more praise than criticism, 
and avidly endorses evangelisation. [7] 

I will provide a random assortment of some examples to highlight the above. Balkaran 
argues that, "throughout South America, Christianity through Roman Catholic missions 
brought stability, education, and civilization" (p. xiii), this in spite of voluminous 
accounts and testimonies as to the exact opposite. What is worse is that he follows up this 
assertion with a quote from Bartolome Herrera (p. xiii), who makes Amerindians sound 
decidedly like unintelligent, moribund sods living in darkness. This is hardly the basis of 
respect that is necessary for understanding and appreciating Amerindian culture in order 
to faithfully describe it. Balkaran also speaks of Amazonian tribes being brought to 
civilization (p. xii), again without mentioning acts of genocide, land theft, disease, social 
dissolution, and other forms of devastation. In other instances, the author calls the 
Spanish Arawaks "culturally advanced," after he details their Hispanisation (p. 123), 
without explaining what it is that makes them "advanced". Similarly, he states that the 
"Wapishanas became civilized faster than the Macushis" (p. 168). Balkaran tends to cast 
reservations in a good light, as designed for the protection of Amerindians, without 
considering how this strategy was also convenient for colonisers who sought to 
marginalise Amerindians in terms of territorial ownership. [8] 

At certain points, readers such as myself might find the underlying ethnocentrism of the 
commentary to be quite unacceptable. In one case, Balkaran asserts: "The Arawaks are 
aptly regarded [by whom he does not say] as the upper caste of the Amerindian tribes (the 
equivalent of a Brahman in Hinduism), and are superior to the other tribes in terms of 
civilization" (p. 41). Ironically, in a dictionary that defines words such as "hill", 
"waterfall" and "creek", the author did not see fit to write an entry for "civilization", thus 
failing to define the very loaded terms that he uses, thereby evading examination of his 
own assumptions. In writing, "an Amerindian life revolves around a hammock" (p. 85), 
Balkaran is unfortunately lending further weight to stereotypical depictions of the 
supposedly 'idle and indolent ways of the native.' This is where an independent project 
can manifest its greatest shortcomings, that is, in failing to emerge from vigorous 
discussion within a wider community of critically minded researchers. While Balkaran 
take the time to outline certain key anthropological concepts, one of the pillars of 
anthropological approaches, "cultural relativism", is sorely absent from the narrative. [9] 

Balkaran reserves his superlatives for when he writes about certain colonial figures, 
revealing more about his opinion of certain individuals, than telling us about the 
individuals themselves. As one example, the author writes: "Gravesande had much 
courage, was loyal, incorruptible and fiercely devoted to Guyana.... He gave us 
Demerara, opened up the Essequibo, established a solid and proven basis to relate to the 
Amerindians and loved Guyana just as he loved Holland", whilst bemoaning the fact that 
no place in Guyana is named after him — "this is indeed a shame," Balkaran adds (p. 82). 
He almost writes as if he personally knew this historical figure. In my view, there is no 
place for such commentary in a "dictionary", with all of the connotations of factuality 
and objectivity which that word carries. In addition, I would especially say that there is 

no place for that in a dictionary on Amerindians, who already had Demerara and to whom 
the Essequibo was already "open", whatever the author may have meant by that. [10] 

Every author is of course entitled to his or her own perspective. However, the issues 
raised above are well worn, and simple assertions without self-critical analysis and 
evidentiary support do not gain much respect. There is a voluminous literature 
concerning the social, cultural and psychological impact of Christian missionizing — as 
this is largely absent from Balkaran's text, one is given the impression that there is q 
wide consensus on his viewpoint. Aside from these considerations, preaching to the 
reader is quite out of place in writing dictionary entries. [1 1] 


One of the recurring shortcomings of the dictionary aspect of the text was the inclusion of 
redundant entries. For example, Balkaran supplies definitions for "Artesian wells," 
"creek," "dredging," "hill," and "waterfall." The meaning of these words is so commonly 
understood, that one must wonder why they are included. I would suggest that there is no 
need for the author to try to do the job of a regular, generic dictionary. Inevitably this will 
lead to a loss of focus. In a revised edition of this text, Balkaran might consider removing 
such entries. [12] 

Colloquialisms, and some minor factual errors, convey an impression that there was a 
lack of pre-publication review. On page 140, Lawrence Keymis is renamed "Leonard 
Keymis." In the case of Kateri Tekawitha, Balkaran states that she converted to 
Catholicism in 1676, but first came into contact with the French missionaries in 1677, 
which seems to say that she converted before ever meeting any missionary (p. 158). On 
page 96 one encounters this phrase: "his likeness for human flesh". In some instances, the 
author substitutes his personal opinion for fact, i.e.: "Although the Angel Falls in 
Venezuela, is the world's largest, the sheer beauty and grandeur of Kaieteur has, by far, 
much more appeal" (p. 99). These are minor details in a volume with disproportionately 
greater strengths, but they may give an impression of haste. [13] 

In terms of the author's research using secondary sources, Balkaran explains that, "the 
Toronto Reference Library was my principal source of research" (p. xv). There is no 
inherent problem with that, except that he could also have used some of the impressive 
Caribbean collections housed at York University, or materials located at the University of 
Toronto, which has one of the largest university library collections in North America. My 
own suggestion would be to expand the coverage of the research and to invite greater 
input from scholars doing research on the Amerindians of Guyana. [14] 

In addition, given the eclectic and detailed coverage of the text, I was left unsure as to 
whether or not a dictionary format was best for this material. Even in the text as it stands 
now, Balkaran would have enough material to reorganise and consolidate the entries in 
the form of an encyclopaedia, for example, with a through entry under the heading of 
"Legends," rather than listing each legend separately and alphabetically by the name of 
the main protagonist or phenomenon featured in the legend. In fact, that might even be 
more helpful to readers who might not know by which name to search for a legend, and 

who may also not wish to read the entire text to find a particular legend. Ultimately, the 
author might concede the need for Amerindians to finally write their own dictionaries for 
Amerindians, as an exercise in preservation and transmission of knowledge (especially to 
the young), and which we, as readers, are allowed to share. Perhaps, if reworked into an 
encyclopaedia format, the author could then function more clearly as an editor instead, 
and seek contributions from both scholars and Amerindian representatives. [15] 


One of my first thoughts on who might benefit the most from the publication of The 
Dictionary of Guyanese Amerindians was school children in Guyana, the Caribbean and 
further afield perhaps. However, I would only suggest marketing the book in this manner 
once latent ethnocentrism, in the ways that I highlighted, has been drained from the actual 
dictionary entries themselves. [16] 

I generally recommend this as a useful information resource which can serve as an 
important guide and companion for novice researchers and ethnographers, and as a useful 
map for those thinking of doing archival research concerning the history of Guyana and 
colonial governance over its Amerindians especially. In addition, the text is well written, 
in clear and widely accessible language, which renders t more useful to a wide variety of 
audiences. [17] 


Dr. Maximilian C. Forte, is an anthropologist and current editor of this Journal. 


Please cite this article as follows, including paragraph numbers if necessary: 

Forte, Maximilian C. (2003). Review of Lai Balkaran (2002). Dictionary of the Guyanese 
Amerindians, and Other South American Native Terms: An A-Z Guide To Their 
Anthropology, Cosmology, Culture, Exploration, History, Geography, Legend, Folklore 
And Myth. [17 paragraphs] KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and 
Anthropology [On-line Journal]. Available at: 
[Date of access: Day, Month, Year]. 

© 2003. Maximilian C. Forte, KACIKE.